Thursday night into Friday morning will be one of the special dates scattered throughout each year when skywatchers can catch a meteor shower as a multitude of flares potentially burst in the darkness.
Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into the debris field left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids going around the sun. These small particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower happens at roughly the same time each year.
The latest shower is the Leonids. They have been active since Nov. 3 and go to Dec. 2. But they will peak Nov. 17 to 18, or Thursday into Friday morning
The Leonids are famous for occasionally producing meteor storms. In 1966, 1999 and 2001, the shower’s rates exceeded 1,000 fireballs per hour. This year’s show should be a more placid 15 meteors per hour or so as our planet is not forecast to encounter any dense debris fields from the shower’s parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, until 2099.
The moon will be around a third full on the night of peak activity. The shower will be best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere after midnight, and later at night for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
And there are more meteor showers to come. Visit The Times’s list of major showers expected in 2022, or sync our curated collection of major space and astronomy events with your personal digital calendar.
How to see a shower
The best practice is to head out to the countryside and get as far away from artificial light sources as possible. People in rural areas may have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city-dwellers have options, too.
Many cities have an astronomical society that maintains a dedicated dark sky area. “I would suggest contacting them and finding out where they have their location,” said Robert Lunsford, the secretary-general of the International Meteor Organization.
Meteor showers are usually best viewed when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. In order to see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get to your viewing location. That will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lie back and take in a large swath of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes and times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. Lunsford suggested a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you can see, the more meteors you can see.”
Binoculars or telescopes aren’t necessary for meteor showers, and in fact will limit your view.